In most board games, being the leader is a mixed blessing. It often means you are the target for everyone else's attacks. As you might expect, RoboRally is no exception.
Sometimes you'll be in the lead, then someone decides "I don't care if I win" and runs spoiler instead. You end up in a pit and someone else wins. This kind of chaos is one of the things I enjoy most about RoboRally. But, it does discourage you from being the leader of the pack.
Getting pushed into a pit by spoilers isn't the real reason you should carefully choose when to be in the lead, however. The simple reason is each robot's forward firing laser. If you are in front of everyone else, you get shot in the back a lot, and your laser is hitting only air. Taking a bunch of damage is a fast way to lose the lead!
There are times when taking the lead is a good idea. If you can get way ahead, a few points of damage won't slow you too much. At the beginning of the game, zooming ahead for a bit is a fine plan. There's often a clusterjumble and avoiding the resulting pushfest is a good way to end up where you intend.
Option cards are awesome. Most people tend to either over or under value them. This isn't too surprising since the option you get is random. Taking time to go after them when they are too far away, or not seizing the opportunity when they are close can cost you.
For me, option cards are often a reliable investment because they are a small damage shield. This make them the only way to tank extra damage. As mentioned below regarding powering down, having fewer than 7 cards isn't good. Discarding a mediocre option card to avoid dropping below 7 is a solid plan.
The two strongest option cards are Fire Control and Mechanical Arm (if you are playing with a starting option card for each player, don't let these two be available for that!).
Being pushed into a pit is one of the worst things that can happen to you. It costs you a life, 2 damage, and a lot of time. Careful planning can help you avoid it happening to you!
The simple truth is that if you are standing next to a pit, you can be pushed in. If you are going anywhere near a pit and another robot, try to avoid ending a register next to the pit. Spend your move 1's to get close, then use your move 2 and 3's to avoid danger completely.
Conversely, it's a great plan to push other people into pits. It's always risky business (you have to be near the pit yourself), but if you can pull it off, you will set them back a lot!
I suspect this point and the next are the two most overlooked. It's pretty easy to end up with a hand with very few or no turns, or the opposite problem. Every card you have in hand increases your options and the odds you avoid that problem. Anytime you've taken damage, you stand to gain from powering down. However, skipping a turn can be a very high price.
Generally, if you have 3 or more damage, you should plan on powering down sometime soon. 7 cards is generally enough cards to work with and the 2 damage you have can be repaired by ending a turn on a wrench. 6 cards, however, means you have to play all but one card you draw, and you are dangerously close to locked registers.
Powering down requires some planning, but is best with more. You, certainly, want to make sure you are far away from being pushed off and shot repeatedly. But, you may not always have the convenience of a few surrounding walls at your disposal. Conveyors (that don't send you to your doom) are a great place to power down because you become a moving target.
This lesson has been the hardest for me to learn. Teachers always tell you to do this, but its not always needed. However, for me, it's a firm rule that I decided on after a series of mishaps. Back when I got ahold of the new version of the game, I died on the first turn in 5 consecutive games. Some of them were simple "turn, turn... Wait, why am I facing that way?!... move 1… and die" affairs, and some were spectacular "move 3, move 3, zoom, zoom! Omgapit -- I miscounted" But they all had one thing in common: I didn't double check my program.
As I've learned this painful lesson, I've started using my double checking to greater use. Not only do I check that I will end up where I plan, I use it as a chance to think about where I expect other people to be going. Looking at the board as a whole helps you plan better, and sometimes you'll realize that your lovely wife intends to zoom right past you... Which, unfortunately, results in your falling in pit. Time to reroute!